This post was inspired by a story in the WaPo, the relevant detail of which is that, due to the economic hardship in Greece, some young Greek women are selling sex for the price of a sandwich they cannot otherwise afford to buy. Also, the argument I want to make may be old news; this is not a topic where I have a lot of familiarity with the literature.
There are basically two moral views about sex work, which I will define for present purposes as the exchange of money for some form of sex in short-term, one-off transactions. (So, here, sex work is prostitution.) One view is that sex work is a lot like other kinds of work, except it is mostly performed by women and, due to various kinds of sexism and discrimination, has historically been stigmatized and exploited labor. The right course is to learn to treat sex work as normal work, and enact appropriate regulation that protects the sex workers, in the same spirit one would legally protect other kinds of workers.
The other moral view, which I take to be encoded in most state laws in the US (I can’t speak for elsewhere), is that sex work is morally problematic in some deeper way. The usual thought, I believe, is that it degrades the sex worker; sex work is intrinsically undignified. The proper way to handle sex work is to proscribe it entirely, where this is practical, and in any case discourage it. What follows is an argument in favor of this general view.
Suppose there is a hungry person who would like a sandwich, and you run a sandwich shop, so you are in a position to provide them with a sandwich. Other things being equal, it does not seem morally problematic to me to require this person to work for their sandwich, doing more or less whatever needs to be done that they can do. I say “other things being equal” because there are circumstances in which no work should be required. For example, maybe they are disabled, or have already worked fourteen hours that day. Maybe they have responsibilities, like the care of an infant, that prevent them from working for pay. In those cases, just give them the sandwich. But if we consider the case of, let’s say, a healthy able-bodied young woman, without dependents, who is not otherwise employed, who has nothing in particular preventing her from working, it does not seem unjust to me to require her to do some work, about a sandwich’s worth at prevailing wages, for her sandwich. That might mean sweeping the floor of the shop, or wiping down tables, or washing a window or two, or making a few sandwiches for customers, or basically whatever you, the prospective employer for sandwich-wages, wants done.
And a social version of this principle also seems just to me. If a person needs a living and can work for one, it is reasonable for society to expect them to work, rather than be supported by the welfare state (i.e. other people). This principle is compatible with all sorts of labor regulation, protection of workers, finite amounts of unemployment insurance, pensions for the disabled and the elderly, and so on. It is chiefly concerned to prevent the existence of a class of able-bodied spongers who refuse to do useful labor and expect to be supported by everyone else.
Now, if sex work was normal work, then it would fall into the category of labor that an individual, or a society, could expect a person to perform in order to make a living. If sex work was normal work, and the only jobs on offer for able-bodied young women were jobs as prostitutes (as seems to be the case in parts of Greece), it would be reasonable, by the principle above, to expect the women to take up these jobs. Failure to do so should be viewed as shiftlessness, an unwillingness to support oneself and an expectation of sponging off others.
However, I have the strong intuition that this is the wrong reaction. If a hungry young woman refused to sweep a shop floor to earn a sandwich (imagine, for example, an aristocrat newly fallen on hard times) my reaction would be that this is a person who thinks rather too highly of themselves and needs to learn to do some honest labor. If they get hungry, too bad; maybe that will change their minds. On the other hand, if a hungry young woman refused to perform a sex act to earn a sandwich, my reaction would be quite different. This young woman thinks more highly of herself than that, perhaps—and admirably so. Nobody should have to prostitute themselves to earn their daily bread. This is compatible with compassion for those women who are hungry enough to sell sex for food.
So my conclusion is that sex work is not normal work. Sex work is different.